The Death of Cuchulain is a short play, but its form and subject matter are probably going to be unfamiliar to most of the readers of the paper, even professors who aren’t specialists in Irish drama, so a bit more context is required: who is Cuchulain? (This was already explained earlier in the paper, but it’s best to refresh the reader’s memory if the previous reference occurred many pages earlier). Who are the other characters and what are their relationships to Cuchulain? How does the action proceed? (It’s not a conventional play, in terms of its structure and, in cases like that, it’s best to include some specific detail about its unique qualities and features.) How does the play conclude? (The “no spoilers” rule doesn’t really apply when it comes to academic analysis…and the title kind of gives away where Yeats was going). When famous lines appear in a play, it’s best to find a way to acknowledge it in the summary since the fame usually results from the lines’ importance to the central idea of the play.
The Death of Cuchulain by W.B. Yeats (1935)
Briefly, The Death of Cuchulain drastically re-envisions the legendary account of Cuchulain’s last hours, turning it into a short play of four significant scenes with a prose prologue and poetic epilogue. The play’s action begins with Cuchulain, the central hero of pre-Christian Irish mythology, preparing to ride out from his home at Muirthemne to meet the armies of Queen Maeve. He is interrupted by Eithne, who comes bearing twin, contradictory messages. The first is from Cuchulain’s wife, warning him not to go, the second, uttered by Eithne under compulsion from Maeve, tells him he must race into battle. The confusion is not wholly resolved before Cuchulain determines to follow his previous instinct and take up the conflict. The second scene presents Cuchulain’s wounding in battle as a fait accompli. Intending to die on his feet, defending a key pass, he receives help in tying himself to a stone from Aoife, mother of his only son, a boy he unknowingly slew in battle some years before. Aoife has come for revenge but before she can do more than reminisce with Cuchulain, she hears a noise and departs. The third scene begins with the arrival of the Blind Man, who has come to behead the hero for the “twelve pennies” Maeve has promised. He completes his task, freeing Cuchulain’s soul to transcend the flesh as “a soft feathery shape.” The war goddess then introduces the hero’s wife, Emer, who performs a wild dance around the heads of Cuchulain and the six warriors who wounded him. Finally, the play concludes with the singer promised in the prologue. She ties the past to the future – the Easter Rising of 1916 — with a poem containing the famous lines, “Are those things that men adore and loathe/ Their sole reality?/ What stood in the Post Office/ With Pearse and Connolly?”